LONDON: Arsenal and Manchester United are not used to being second-class citizens. But that is what they are in danger of becoming in the Premier League this season as Chelsea roar away at the top of table chasing, surprisingly, by Southampton and West Ham as well as by champions Manchester City.
This is the scenario which makes today’s all-red clash in north London so intriguing.
Arsenal went into the international break in sixth place and off the back of a disappointing 2-1 defeat at Swansea. Manager Arsene Wenger also has some injury concerns.
The long-term absence of Mesut Ozil is not such a problem in midfield where Arsenal have plenty of creative talent and the return of right winger Theo Walcott adds to the threat posed by Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez.
However Arsenal are dangerously thin at the back. Mathieu Debuchy and Laurent Koscielny will both be missing on Saturday and Wayne Rooney will relish the opportunity to attack Per Mertesacker and his makeshift defence.
Rooney’s own confidence has been enhanced by the two goals against Scotland in England’s 3:1 win at Celtic Park on Tuesday. He is England’s third all-time top scorer, after Sir Bobby Charlton (49) and Gary Lineker (48) and relishing every game at club and international level.
United, seventh and one point behind the Gunners, have lost only one of their least six league games – narrowly to Manchester City – which has offered Louis Van Gaal positive signs that his work is beginning to pay off after a difficult start to his first season in the English game in highly challenging circumstances.
However . . . United have injury concerns of their own. Up to 12 players could be missing from team and/or substitutes’ bench.
Luke Shaw and Angel Di Maria both suffered minor injuries in the midweek internationals – Di Maria, curiously, on being fouled by ex-United winger Nani during Argentina’s friendly against Portugal at Old Trafford.
Defensive midfielder Michael Carrick pulled out of the England squad with a groin injury, goalkeeper David De Gea dislocated a finger in Spain training and Holland’s Daley Blind suffered suspected knee ligament damage during their win over Latvia and could be out for up to six months.
Van Gaal was already sure to miss Jonny Evans, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Rafael out of defence as well as Radamel Falcao in attack.
Whoever loses today, only Van Gaal can use injuries as an excuse.